Afghan media professionals dare to start anew in exile | Space for Freedom | DW | 19.06.2024
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Space for Freedom

Afghan media professionals dare to start anew in exile

With help from DW Akademie, Afghan media professionals are committed to covering news in exile.

Ahmad A.* and Sima Z.* were successful television journalists in Afghanistan before the Taliban retook power in 2021. With the help of international organizations, both fled to Pakistan and later, were able to emigrate to Europe and Canada, respectively.

They have not, however, forgotten their responsibility and love for their profession and so, together with a few other exiled journalists, founded a news website. Called Kubhanews, it is published in three languages - Dari, Pashto and English. 


DW Akademie can look back on more than 15 years of close cooperation with Afghan media houses and journalists. After the Taliban took power, it helped evacuate media professionals and their families and created numerous support services in exile, especially in Afghanistan's neighboring countries.

In 2022, the Hannah Arendt Initiative's Space for Freedom project launched training and support programs dedicated to journalistic training, digital security, psychosocial counseling and job coaching. This included a cooperation with the Deutsche Welle program. Native-speaker mentors supported participants in journalism production, and later distributed the stories on Deutsche Welle's Dari Pashto service website.

Among those authors were Ahmad A. and Sima Z., who were still in Pakistan during the project. Under the premise that we would not publish their real names for security reasons, they agreed to answer questions about what they had experienced and what they had built up in the meantime.

Ahmad A., please tell us why you left Afghanistan? What were the last few days before you fled to Pakistan like?

Ahmad A.: The regime's collapse overnight, the flight of Afghan government and political leaders and the failure of what was agreed upon with the Taliban in Doha, all caused complete anxiety and indescribable fear in the existence of every Afghan citizen (Editor's note: The Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban regulated the gradual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. This was done without the central government in Kabul and the international partners. In return, the Taliban were supposed to start peace negotiations with the Afghan government, but these failed). Soldiers, lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, government and private sector employees, university students and schoolchildren experienced the same horror of Taliban rule in Afghanistan years ago, and now, too, with the re-emergence of the Taliban. Journalists who had covered the horrors of the Taliban or the restoration of freedom of expression and democracy until the day before the fall of the regime were the most helpless people that day and that night. I was a TV journalist and this threat was growing for me by the day, until the fear of threats became a genuine threat and I had to flee to Pakistan overland with my family and children.

Sima Z., did these reasons also prompt you to leave?

Sima Z.: That and my being a woman! My appearance on TV in a country with strict traditional customs and mores not only gave me an individual identity, but I was also the face and voice of countless Afghan women who had no voice or face in this society. If the presence of a single woman wearing a hijab on the street is considered a crime by the Taliban, imagine what fate would have awaited me who was speaking in front of the TV camera. I belong to a generation in Afghanistan that was familiar and grew up with the importance of freedom and women's rights. The Taliban took that away from me.

I would like to hear about your arrival in Pakistan and life there.

Sima Z.: Though my family and I struggled to get visas for Pakistan, we traveled across the border from Torkham (Editor's note: Torkham is in eastern Afghanistan) into Pakistan. At that time, many Afghans were fleeing to Pakistan and everyone helped each other. With the help of the Afghans who had arrived there before us, we also found a rented apartment. We also learned about the environment and facilities, as well as about the threats in Pakistan.

Afghanistan | Pakistan | Grenzübergang in Torkham

Located halfway between the capitals of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Torkham border crossing is the busiest crossing on the 2600-kilometre-long border

Ahmad A.: The large presence of Afghans in one area was of practical support, but there were also serious difficulties. There was a risk of persecution in Pakistan. Refugees there are considered second-class people. Their immigrant identity can make them the target of corruption, threats, robbery and physical torture. I'm still afraid to reveal my real name because it could put my relatives who are still in Pakistan and Afghanistan in danger.

Sima Z.: A residence visa was another big problem for Afghans. Those who had entered Pakistan illegally or whose visas had expired were at risk of being expelled from Pakistan or imprisoned. Poverty, unemployment and the exorbitant prices of rent and food, which were deliberately higher for Afghans than for Pakistanis, made living conditions more difficult and this is still the case today.

Ahmad A.: School education was another problem. It was only possible to send children to school if you had a lot of money, which almost nobody did. My children - like me - just measured the length and width of the room walls every day.

Sima Z.: In the beginning, I hoped that the situation in Afghanistan would soon improve and that I would be able to return. I had no idea about the flight and homelessness. I still couldn't leave behind what I had built up for myself.

How did you find out about DW Akademie's Space for Freedom program?

Ahmad A.: The call for journalists to join the program quickly became known among many exiled journalists in Pakistan. I think many people applied for it.

Tell us about the admission process from your perspective.

Sima Z.: I was very happy to be accepted. The process of vetting the journalists was long, but the decisions were transparent. Ultimately, what I learned during this project was very productive for me.

Please tell us about your feelings.

Sima Z.: For me, remembering my identity as a journalist was the most important thing that this program made possible. My fear of being alone was reduced. I realized that even in the most difficult situations, a window of hope can be opened.

Space for Freedom Hannah Arendt Initiative

With support from DW Akademie's Space for Freedom project, and the Hannah Arendt Initiative, journalists can find the means to continue practicing their profession in exile.

Ahmad A.: The professional training with new journalism methods, the opportunity for practical work and finding myself in my profession again were the best parts of this program for me. Professional job search advice and networking were important for future development. For the work we have now started, the support from DW Akademie was very useful.

Sima Z.: The scholarship was of great help. It has eased our daily worries about work and earning money. At the same time, the constant contact and advice from DW Akademie colleagues with us on every case and problem that arose was very valuable.

Ahmad A.: For me, it meant a lot to write a report again and to have the opportunity to reach international standards and publish it on an international media platform - in a situation where there was no possibility for a normal life.

It wasn't long ago that you arrived in Europe and Canada and have now founded a news website. Why and how did you come up with this idea?

Ahmad A.: Most of the experienced Afghan journalists are out of Afghanistan now or they do not have the opportunity to properly work in Afghanistan. Severe professional restrictions and difficult financial opportunities keep most of them away from their profession. Under today's conditions, there is an urgent need for professionally produced, transparent news for the people of Afghanistan and the international community. We have taken the first step on this path by using what we have learned in exile journalism. Our working team consists of female journalists who left Afghanistan after the Taliban took power and have a lot of experience in journalism and management.

Sima Z.: With very limited possibilities, but with great hope, we hope that we can carry out our work with much more professionalism than is the case with other news websites or social media. For transparent and very accurate journalistic work, however, we need more resources than are now available to us. The future role of this news website should be constructive, informative and unpretentious. We are convinced that the creation of a new news website in exile should not be a repetition and should not have the usual lack of seriousness that is unfortunately widespread. The project's financial possibilities are still at the level of personal and individual contributions, which can be a major management problem. This is a new beginning, but the road ahead is familiar, which gives us strength.

*The interviewees names are known to the editors but are being withheld for security reasons.

The Hannah Arendt Initiative is a German government program for the protection of media professionals from crisis and conflict areas. Space for Freedom is a DW Akademie project within the initiative and is funded by the Federal Foreign Office. It focuses on journalists from Afghanistan, Russia, Belarus and Central America.

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